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‘Licorice Pizza’ Slashes Christmas Dates in Smart Strategy, but for Indies It’s Painful

TLC for PTA: Scheduled for 2000 screens, it’s now booked for 800 or less. The new strategy suggests long-term faith in the film.

"Licorice Pizza"

“Licorice Pizza”

MGM

Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Licorice Pizza,” previously projected to expand on Christmas Day to around 2,000 theaters, will now open at fewer than half. United Artists informed hundreds of theaters this week, including many independents, that availability would be delayed.

The film spent its first two weeks in only four New York/Los Angeles theaters and showed the best limited performer since “1917” in 2019. It dropped only 22 percent in its second weekend, which attests to strong word of mouth. Even more significant is its draw for audiences under 35, unusual for a late year awards-appeal release.

Why the last-minute switch? UA president of distribution Erik Lomis is away from his office on a family matter and was unavailable for comment, but precedent for both this director’s films and other top awards contenders suggests this move represents faith in the film.

In the past decade, leading awards contenders that platformed on or around Thanksgiving usually expanded over Christmas — but nothing like 2,000 dates. Films like “The Favourite,” “The Darkest Hour,” “The Shape of Water,” “La La Land,” “Imitation Game,” and “Silver Linings Playbook” played between 734 and 943 theaters Christmas week, then expanded later. That’s the revised range for “Pizza.”

That said, this decision means a loss for some key independent specialized theaters. The timing is also unfortunate; that it comes so close to release is a financial and psychological blow when so many are struggling.

One exhibitor said they were told on December 7 to start selling tickets on December 10. On December 8, United Artists reversed course and cancelled hundreds of Christmas dates.

In its two weekends of “pop-up” Saturday-night screenings, UA included several key independent locations as well as some from Landmark, Alamo Drafthouse, and City Cinemas. Sources indicate the most theaters losing the Christmas date are larger chains, including about half from the top three circuits. Inclusion seems to be related mostly to grossing ability.

"There Will Be Blood"

“There Will Be Blood”

Everett Collection

Previous Anderson films rolled out slowly, with none among his previous four (including “There Will Be Blood,” the most successful) ever playing in more than 1,620 theaters. Only “Blood” grossed over $40 million. “Phantom Thread” in 2017 was the biggest among the last three with $21 million. That suggests careful handling, even making mid-course changes based on results.

Several variables play into this, including a later awards schedule. “Pizza” has a potentially younger audience than other awards titles, with perhaps wider appeal, but it still needs exposure to maximize reaction. The opportunity to expand well in mid-January is greater than usual; the month offers little competition from other adult-oriented titles

The initial 2,000-theater break, apart from being unusual, suggested rolling the dice and going out the widest during the brief but intense holiday period. That was a do-or-die strategy; it meant if audiences didn’t respond, it could be the end of the road. This suggests not only that the film still needs careful handling even after its strong debut, but also that the potential could be maximized by moving more slowly.

The delayed expansion hurts some exhibitors initially, but it reinforces the sense that “Pizza” will have an unusually long theater-exclusive play. It could make sense to maintain that for 75 days or more — at least until the Oscar nominations come out on February 8. SAG-AFTRA and other guild citations could boost interest. Keeping it on screen during this period is more likely with a slower rollout.

That’s small consolation to theaters that counted on the film in two weeks, but this longer-term strategy — for once — favors the exhibitors.

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